Relation of Fine Art To Christianity And Practical Philanthropy
( Originally Published 1896 )
"It is the persistent, unchristian and anti-christian philosophy which assails and affronts the aesthetics of a supernatural faith."
See now I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains.-David.
I have no objection against building grand and imposing structures on our fashionable avenues, unless it be to the absolute neglect of our unfashionable avenues.-Dr. Frank Bristol.
Is it for the interest of the Christian religion to admit the service of the fine arts ? Is Christianity the purer without the service of art ? May there not be a true sacred art - useful as one of the outward forms of the spirit of Christianity? Can art be made conducive to intelligent faith and consistent Christian lifc ? In the past history of the church, have decorative art and external splendor had a good or bad influence on the genuineness and earnestness of Christian worship? These are very important questions and on which many good people have differed. Who will fearlessly answer them without religious prejudice on the one side, or an over-zeal for art on the other?
We claim that, notwithstanding the abuses of art, both pictorial and sculptured representation have had, and may still have a pure and powerful effect in conveying Christian knowledge and exciting a lofty imagination and a warm, genuine devotion. The cause of . truth and pure religion can be served by a judicious use of art-illustrations. We believe that the splendors of the fine arts-painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry, music- may be made to assist us in praising and honoring God and setting forth the beauty of holiness. By what authority should we not now be able to exclaim with David of old, Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary," and Out of Zion the perfection of beauty God hath shined? "
We are not to be so captivated with pictures and works of art, elaborate music and fine architecture, as to admire them for their own sake, but for the sake of the truth they teach and the moral lessons they impart. All the vitality and power there is in art should be brought into the service of religion. A work of art may be invested with sacred associations and minister to our noblest gratification. What people want is to be helped by every legitimate means, in their spiritual life,.
The advantage of art is that it may be made an effective means to an end, it may be a medium to convey spiritual thought. Beautifully decorated dishes will not satisfy a hungry man more than a painted fire on a cold day will warm him; but, at the same time, the said artistic productions may satisfy and even, delight his God-given aesthetic nature which is often the door opening into his higher nature. The body with all its appetites is not the whole of man, nor the chief and best part of him. His nobler spiritual nature must be kindled and fed. This is done through out-ward media - colors, forms, sounds. The eye and ear are the windows of the soul. If man were a purely spiritual being, he would not need even the fine arts to influence him. As it is, his spirit, trammeled with this mortal coil, needs help - divine aid; and human instrumentalities-the "foolishness of preaching," sacred architecture and music, can voice the spirit of God. Who has not heard and felt, too, that spirit while in the presence of some masterpiece of sacred art or under the sway of holy song ! The earnest soul may get a spiritual uplift while quietly contemplating some sacred art work. If the whole of religion consisted in a sudden glow of feeling or mere sentiment, in a sort of animal excitement and magnetism, it would have no use for art expressing thought and emotion in permanent forms of grace and beauty.
We are not to love the things of this world, nor to dote upon its loveliest objects. They are all to be held subservient to man's spiritual nature. The Christian's business is with God. The finest works of art are "of the earth earthy." The most excellent things of earth are base compared with spiritual things. We are to be spiritually minded; but can a man become so spiritually minded as that he may justly look down upon and despise all material things, all works of religious art? We do not believe that God intended that Christians should mortify their aesthetic nature, their love of beauty, and count every sweet of sense a sin. There may be a " just and humble veneration of the works of God upon earth " without an idolatrous worshiping of any material thing. Ought not every good thing to be under tribute to Christ and his religion?
All will admit that the highest good we can obtain is spiritual good - spiritual blessings. Now, the Bible makes certain material things to be the emblems of spiritual blessings. Ought we, then, to undervalue or condemn these material objects which the Bible thus dignifies? Nay, it would have us regard them as good things in themselves. God has, in his sacred word employed oil and honey and water and bread as emblems of spiritual healing and sweetness and holiness and life. And are not these temporal things good in themselves?
Painting and sculpture and architecture are material and temporal things, but they are good things in that, under the Divine influence, they teach good and impart instruction and enjoyment and comfort and blessing. Things of earth are good if they can be made emblematic of better or spiritual things. When Jerusalem was in deep affliction, God gave her this sweet promise: " Behold, I will lay thy stones with fair colors, and thy foundations with sapphires; and I will make thy windows of agate, and thy gates of carbuncles, and all thy borders of pleasant stones." Spiritual things are to be our highest joy, but God made material things to be -delightful also to us in a true and noble sense. The human soul delights not only in beauty but also in majesty, sublimity, height and strength, whether these are seen in lofty trees, mountains or buildings. The heaven-pointing church spire as well as the sky-kissing mountain may have a wholesome effect on the mind. Gothic church architecture with its pointed arch and gable may be expressive of religious aspiration and feeling. We believe that devout men may express their devotion in their buildings, and these in turn may help to elevate and ennoble other beholders.